Implementation of automation is on the rise in the many sectors served by hydraulics and pneumatics, bringing with it a variety of technological changes to fluid power systems. With these design changes for automation, there are several opportunities and challenges facing the fluid power industry.
According to a survey of Power & Motion’s audience, 50% of respondents have seen an uptick in requests from customers for solutions which will aid automation efforts. And 90% of respondents anticipate further growth for automation-related solutions in the coming years, demonstrating the continued need for these technologies.
The need for more automation is due in large part to the labor challenges facing the industries served by fluid power including manufacturing and heavy-duty mobile equipment. By making work easier to complete or even doing work in place of a human – freeing people up to focus on other, more important tasks – automation is helping overcome these labor challenges.
How is Automation Impacting Fluid Power Systems?
As fluid power systems play an important role in many machines, it will be necessary to incorporate the technologies required for automation, such as sensors and software, with hydraulics and pneumatics. Doing so enables these components to meet the needs of automated systems, such as more precise and controlled movements.
Many in the fluid power industry are already seeing the impact of automation. Thirty-four percent of survey respondents said more than 50% of their fluid power component and system designs are now influenced by the move toward automation. About 45% said 10-50% of their designs are influenced by this trend, signifying its growing importance to customers.
Respondents were almost evenly divided on the ways automation is impacting fluid power systems. Just over 36% said the addition of new technologies are impacting their hydraulic and pneumatic system designs followed closely by 31.67% indicating the need to improve precision and control as a major impact. Another 25% said there is greater integration of sensors in their system designs which is helping to meet the requirements of automation systems.
The use of sensors in particular has risen in fluid power systems over the last several years due to the improved control they can provide for faster, smoother and more accurate operation – key requirements for automation systems.
Will there be a Shift Away from Hydraulics and Pneumatics?
While automation brings with it the integration of other technologies into fluid power systems, there is also the potential for a replacement or augmentation of traditional hydraulic and pneumatic solutions in some applications.
Just over 58% of survey respondents said they see a shift away from traditional hydraulics and pneumatics due to automation. Several respondents noted servo systems – including servo motors and servo control – as a way in which fluid power components will change because of automation.
Many respondents also pointed to the increasing use of electronics alongside hydraulics and pneumatics, noting that many of the changes coming to the market will help to enhance the capabilities of traditional components as opposed to completely replacing them.
However, there are some technologies which are being used in place of traditional hydraulics and pneumatics, namely electromechanical devices such as electric actuators. Many of these components are able to provide forces similar to fluid power components but with more precision and control.
Hybrid systems combining the best of fluid power and electronic devices are becoming prevalent as well for automated systems. These systems can provide machine OEMs with the benefits of both component types, enabling them to meet various performance requirements which could include not only automating tasks but also ensuring efficient use of energy in their operation.
A Need for More Industry Education
When it comes to implementing automation solutions, the majority of survey respondents, 45%, said the biggest challenge is uncertainty about what technologies to use. This was followed by 25% indicating there is not enough industry information.
The latter was particularly evident from Automate 2023, an event focused on automation and related technologies in the industrial space. A3 - Association for Advancing Automation which owns the event reported it was the largest edition yet, driven by the growing demand for automation solutions and education on how to implement them.
Seeing this industry need – which was expressed by the many people the Power & Motion team spoke with at the show as well – the association plans to hold the event annually going forward.
Better understanding of the technologies utilized and how to implement them will ensure automation systems provide the desired benefits. In conjunction with this, some survey respondents said a key challenge to automation system development is knowing how to choose between use of fluid power and electronic alternatives. Understanding how to weigh the pros and cons of each type can help designers create systems which are capable of meeting both performance and application requirements. Keeping up with new technology introductions which could benefit automation systems was another noted challenge.
In addition, survey respondents pointed to the need to demonstrate the benefits of implementing automation solutions. These systems can be an expensive initial investment; being able to prove the business case and potential return on investment can help to overcome the potential hesitation with making investments in automation.
Opportunities for Fluid Power in Automation
Despite the challenges associated with developing and implementing automation, the majority of survey respondents, 88%, see opportunities for the fluid power industry as these systems grow in use.
Ways in which respondents see automation benefiting fluid power include increasing interest in development of efficient systems. Hydraulics in particular are known to be very inefficient but improving their efficiency can benefit their use in many applications and overall machine efficiency – leading to reduced energy costs, among other benefits.
The increased combination of electronics with hydraulics and pneumatics is another opportunity noted by many survey respondents. Doing so can help to achieve the efficiency, precision and control desired in many applications today, including automation solutions. Improving the performance of fluid power components in this manner ensures they are able to continue providing value to machine OEMs and their customers.
Inclusion of electronics also presents the opportunity to monitor the health and status of components and systems, aiding with implementation of preventative maintenance one survey respondent pointed out. This can help to keep machines running in a productive manner by preventing unplanned downtime from occurring as users can better monitor machinery and fix issues before they cause a major problem and hinder business operations.
While there are many technologies entering the market to aid with automation, several survey respondents said there will remain a need for hydraulics and pneumatics in many applications. As one respondent noted, there will always be a need for fluid power systems because of the power density they can provide as well as their reliability in harsh environments.
Some survey respondents said the use of servo systems with hydraulics and pneumatics will benefit their use in automation. One respondent said hydraulic systems with servo-driven pumps can provide high levels of power density and efficiency and can even be more energy efficient than using electric alternatives alone. The respondent said this is similar with pneumatic systems as well.
Another respondent noted the advent of servo systems and proportional pneumatics is opening doors to new applications.
There will always be a need to make machines easier and safer to use as well as more productive, which automation can help to achieve – whether by automating a single task or enabling unmanned operation of a vehicle. As such, it will be important for the fluid power industry to continue advancing so it can help to achieve these machine requirements and meet the needs of the growing effort to implement automation solutions.